Coptic Apologetics Discussion Group is up and running for the third year, and the first two monthly topics are scientific ones. January’s meeting was on the Big Bang Theory while February’s meeting will look more broadly at the sometimes rocky relationship between faith and science. But how rocky does that relationship need to be? Does it need to be as difficult as some would make it to be? If you are one of those people who believe that God created the world in six 24-hour days a few thousand years ago, I must warn you: you are not going to like what I have to say.
I have to confess that although I took an interest in Young Earth Creationism for some years, I have now come to pretty much reject it wholesale. It really comes down to how you read the Bible, and how willing you are to let reality be itself rather than trying to squash it into a pre-arranged box of your own making. Such an approach can lead to ridiculous situations, such as the one Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine dug for himself in the early seventeenth century. Consider his view of the preposterous new idea that the earth might orbit around the sun rather than the other way around.
… to affirm that the sun is really fixed in the centre of the heavens and that the earth revolves very swiftly around the sun is a dangerous thing, not only irritating the theologians and philosophers, but injuring our holy faith and making the sacred scripture false.
“Injuring our faith and making the sacred scripture false”? Really? The good cardinal’s words seem absurd to the modern Christian. Why in the world would he be so dogmatic? The fault lies, I think, in his mistaking his own way of interpreting scripture for the scripture itself. Even today, Young Earth Creationists fall into the same trap, insisting that if their very literal interpretation of the Bible is disproved by science, then the whole Bible becomes worthless and all of Christianity – all of it, mind you – collapses into a bottomless abyss of unreliability. Nice of them to include us in their prophetic doom.
There have been many tales of people who have experienced the life beyond death and returned to describe it, but none has impressed me as much as this one. The reason it impresses me is that the subject of the experience, unlike most other cases, was a hard-headed, fairly agnostic and highly intelligent scientist … a neurosurgeon, no less! If anyone should be able to tell a purely physiological phenomenon from a genuine supernatural experience, you would think it would be someone like Dr Eben Alexander.
A near death experience is one where a patient is clinically dead for a period of time and is then resuscitated. Such patients often recall strange experiences during the time they were unconscious; some of them pleasant, some of them deeply distressing. A variety of natural explanations have been put forward for this very real phenomenon, such as the effects of a lack of oxygen in the brain. Others have pointed to the possibility of producing strange experiences using the general anaesthetic ketamine as suggesting a similar natural process underlying near death experiences.
Which is why the story Dr Alexander tells is particularly pertinent. He contracted E. coli meningitis, a bacterial infection of the lining around the brain that seriously imperilled his life and flung him into a coma for seven days. During that time, numerous scans of his brain and its function were conducted, and showed that his brain was not just impaired, but genuinely non-functional. What this means is that his vivid experiences are unlikely to have been produced by a lack of oxygen or damage to neuronal circuits causing the brain cells to misfire and produce hallucination, or any other natural process. To put it bluntly: a brain can’t hallucinate when it has stopped working altogether.
I have been interested in near death experiences for decades now, ever since reading Beyond Death’s Door by Dr Maurice Rawlings back in the eighties. His description of a patient who could recall the details of a neck tie worn by a staff member who came into his hospital room after he had clinically died and left before he had recovered consciousness struck me as being pretty good evidence for the reality of such experiences. Another striking tale I came across on the net was that of a Russian priest (from memory) who had a near death experience in a hospital during which he wafted out of his body and came across an infant in another bed who wordlessly told him that his hip hurt. Upon waking and describing the infant and his location to doctors, it turned out that the infant had been in hospital for weeks crying constantly with pain but without a diagnosis. When they examined his hip, they found that was where the problem was. This kind of knowledge, inaccessible to the patient, discounts the possibility of any natural explanation.
So I was fascinated when I heard of an experiment to be conducted by Professor Bruce Greyson at the University of Virginia that planned to test out the reality of near death experiences. His plan was as elegant as it was simple. Continue reading “Near Death Experiences”
Did you know that the fastest growth among the Christian denominations in Australia today is happening in the Pentecostal and Charismatic Protestant Churches?
One of the defining characteristics of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity is the phenomenon of speaking in strange languages. It is believed that this is a miraculous gift from the Holy Spirit, that it continues a practice of the Apostles themselves, and that it is even a sign of God’s favour. People who speak in tongues consider it to be an experience of connecting with God, a superior form of prayer in fact. Some will even go so far as to say that Christians who do not speak in tongues are seriously deficient as Christians
All of these beliefs are highly suspect. But don’t take my word for it; read the evidence and make up your own mind. You will find some detailed research here which I will try to summarise briefly below.
Firstly, if speaking in tongues were truly a gift of the Holy Spirit, one would expect it to be unique to those who believe in the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit. But in reality, speaking in tongues or glossolalia was not only practiced by pagan cults well before Christianity began, but continues to practiced by non-Christians today, including Hindu fakirs and gurus in India and even, worryingly, by voodoo practitioners in Haiti. There is no doubt that pagans began speaking in tongues long before Christianity began, and there is compelling evidence that the practice was smuggled into Christian life by pagan converts to Christianity.
Sitting at home in bed with a nasty respiratory infection is not my ideal way of spending a Sunday morning. My groggy head makes it hard to focus, and I find my thoughts turning to the heavens above…
A milestone was recently passed: the 555th extrasolar planet was confirmed. An extra solar planet is a planet orbiting a star other than our own sun. When I was growing up, there was a debate going on as to whether such planets even existed. Then in 1992 a few thousand years of wondering came to an end when the first extrasolar planet was discovered, whizzing around a pulsar. Since then, the discoveries have come thick and fast, with new methods for detecting the slippery little creatures being developed all the time. A few of the planets have even posed for a photo, like this one orbiting Fomalhaut (see picture), a star just 25 light years away in the constellation of the Southern Fish (Fomalhaut is Arabic for ‘mouth of the whale’). The Kepler space observatory is expected to take the figure into the thousands.
How exciting! Imagine what it might be like to travel to one of these planets orbiting around an alien sun. What exotic landscapes would we see? What new science might we learn there? For all human existence, we have been limited to one little, tiny corner of the universe. Until a few decades ago, we had no direct physical access to anything except what we could find here on earth. And then, as we began to send robots to the moon, the planets, the asteroids and comets of our own solar system, we were constantly surprised by what we discovered. Our furthest explorers, the Viking probes launched in the 1980s, are only now approaching the edge of our solar system, and again, making unexpected discoveries. What might we discover in an alien solar system?
Could there be life?
The scientific answer to that question is an interesting one. Most scientists who think about it believe the chances are pretty good that life exists somewhere else in the universe, but that our chances of ever coming across it are pretty dismal. Much of this thinking can be traced back to the famous Drake equation that calculates the probability of life and compares it to the number of planets that might be capable of harbouring life. There is ample speculation out there on the scientific and social questions that are raised by the possibility of alien life, so I won’t go into them here. But there is another set of questions that is a little harder to find being discussed.
The theological questions are no less interesting. I recall hearing HG Bishop Moussa commenting on this topic at a conference once: “If we find life on other planets, we’ll just tuck our Bibles under our arms and go and preach to the aliens” he said. A nice repost for an impromptu response, but perhaps there is more to the matter? Continue reading “Close Encounters of the Theological Kind.”
I have been doing some reading on the tantalising question of what human consciousness is, and it has led me to some very strong arguments for the limitations of scientific explanations.
The natural enemy of the Christian faith today is no longer paganism as it was in the Apostolic age, but naturalism: the idea that nothing exists except that which is physical, made of matter and energy. The naturalist therefore only accepts that which you can examine scientifically and objectively. Anything outside this definition is considered not to exist or be real. Thus of course, the very idea of a supernatural God is unacceptable to the naturalist.
But human consciousness seems to pose an insoluble problem for the naturalist. In 1974 Serbian-American philosopher Thomas Nagel published a paper titled “What is it Like to be a Bat?” In it, he pointed out that no amount of objective, scientific knowledge can tell us what it feels like to be a bat. OK, maybe we can imagine flying like a bat, since we have our own similar experiences of flying in airplanes or floating under parachutes. But whereas we humans mostly experience the outside world through our sense of sight, bats mostly experience the outside world through a sense we do not possess: echolocation. They emit high pitched sound waves that bounce off their surroundings and they have specialised, highly sensitive sensors for picking up the reflected waves and creating a mental picture of the world around them. It’s a kind of natural sonar system. Continue reading “What Drives Atheists Batty.”
Life today in a western society is very different to the life our parents and grandparents knew. As a result, our whole world view is quite different, and as such, I propose, our faith needs to also adapt to the new and ever changing circumstances.
One important area where this applies is the relationship between faith and knowledge. Extremes often help to illustrate a point more conveniently: think of your ancestors of centuries ago, most likely living in rural village somewhere along the majestic Nile. Let us imagine Folla, your great, great, great grandmother. She has grown to be a young woman without the benefit of formal education, for very few Egyptians can afford a formal education, and the vast majority would not want it even if they could afford it. It would be a waste of time and would not in any way help in running the family farm. Thus she is blissfully unaware of any formal laws of nature, of anything but the most basic mathematics, she cannot read or write, so she has no access to books or newspapers, and the only history she knows is the local legends of her village and the stories she hears read out in Church from the Bible and the Synaxarion every Sunday. She does not understand what the priest prays in Church every Sunday, for he prays in Coptic while she only knows Arabic. Sunday School has not yet been introduced to Egypt and the priest has only slightly more education than her, so he does not give sermons or conduct Bible studies; in fact her chief source of religious knowledge is her mother, the kindly woman who would sit her on her lap when she was a young girl and tell her stories that she had heard from her mother before her.
One of the (many) things I find very confusing in life is the question of Free Will. I have yet to find a satisfying explanation for how free will works. On what basis does a person make his or her choices? And if one’s choices are determined by those factors, where is the freedom? And yet, we experience this strange freedom that we cannot explain every day. When Samuel Johnson was challenged to defend the existence of free will, his answer was typically pithy yet profound: “I know I have free will, and there’s an end to the matter!”
On a more practical level, we grapple with free will. In confessions, “I couldn’t help it Abouna,” is a phrase I have grown accustomed to hearing, usually followed by something like; “He forced me to swear at him!”
“Hmmm” I will answer if I am in a sarcastic frame of mind, “so he reached into your mouth, grabbed your tongue, and forced it to produce a swear word?”
The most common response I get is a stare that is usually reserved for inmates of mental hospitals. The question of my sanity notwithstanding, personal responsibility is a deeper issue than I once thought. How much of what we do is conscious choice and how much is ‘mechanical’? And if mechanical, then how are we to be held responsible for it? Continue reading “Free Will?”
A couple of months ago I wrote about the Coptic Orthodox Church’s view on alcohol consumption . In summary, this policy is that while alcohol is not considered ‘evil’ in itself, it carries many risks, and as a community, we are better off not having any alcohol consumption at all, rather than accepting casual drinking with all its inherent risks.
I have since learned that the post apparently stirred up some controversy on an Orthodox Christian discussion board. Not many of the other Orthodox Churches share the Coptic policy on alcohol, it seems. So it was most interesting to find a piece on the Anglican Church’s official website which, while not going all the way and advocating total abstinence, does nonetheless come close. Graham Stanton, the author, bases his argument on the statistical facts that illustrate the damage that alcohol infllicts on a society that tolerates, or even, encourages it:
“As Christians our concern is for the three million Australians engaging in risky levels of alcohol consumption, for the 70,000 victims of alcohol related assault, the 20,000 children who will be victims of alcohol related child-abuse and the 450,000 children who live in households where they are at risk of exposure to binge drinking by at least one adult. As church communities we are also concerned for the way Christian youth and young adults are imbibing this culture to their physical and spiritual harm.”
All Australians know the prominent role alcohol plays in Australian culture. Drinking is seen to be a sign of manhood (or toughness in females, the Australian female being renowned for her ability to ‘match it’ with the best of the blokes); a social loosener for otherwise shy Aussie blokes; and a community activity that brings people together. This warm and fuzzy image of alcohol consumption takes something of a battering when one considers the indigenous communities that have been all but destroyed by rampant alcoholism that is endemic among Aboriginal communities where unemployment is high and free time is excessive. Domestic violence, sexual abuse, abuse of children and a multitude of diseases are just some of the terrible results of this uncontrolled use of alcohol, and show us just how much evil alcohol can produce in certain situations.
A last stroll through the tortuous ethical jungle that is IVF, genetic engineering and cloning…
Is there anything morally wrong with parents choosing the eye and hair colour of their children, or the inherent abilities they will have? Do we have the right to “play God” in this way? Or were we meant to just accept whatever God gave us?
Throughout history, the whole human race has had to accept certain things in life as being beyond their control. That list used to include things like most diseases, accidental injuries, occasional starvation, the tyranny of distance and so on. But technological and medical advances have given us control over these aspects of our lives, and today we take that for granted.
Cloning is an issue that raises many complex moral and ethical issues. There is any number of opinions on many of these issues, but it has so far proven difficult for the honest Christian to find certain answers on many of them. I am not sure that I have definite answers, but I will simply share some thoughts on a few interesting questions. No doubt you might disagree with some of the things I write, but feel free to comment and tell me why.
If a child is diagnosed with an abnormality in the womb, should that child be aborted?
We must begin with what we believe about that child in the womb. If we believe that the child is a human being (as we do) then we must treat her the same way we would treat her after she was born. The question thus becomes: if a baby is born and has an abnormality, should we put her to death? I don’t think there are many rational people in the world today who would answer yes to that question. Continue reading “IVF and Cloning Part 4”